Two Lost Landmarks

Please click here for the presentation with images

Meeting with Historian John Ralston on Sunday, February 27, 2011

An airfield in Los Altos Hills: are you kidding?

Los Altos Hills is of course hilly, and being wooded and rural, seems an unlikely place for a pilot to land in or take off from. Private aircraft in the 1930's however were comparatively small and light, requiring only a few hundred feet to land and take off; many took off from pastures and other clearings. Aviation enthusiast Ralph Isenberg, owner of two planes, cleared a landing strip on his extensive property between today's Altadena Drive and Old Trace Lane. Isenberg and friends of his flew from his improvised air strip, which also had a small aircraft hangar for shelter and maintenance.

Isenberg's property was purchased by pioneer Palo Alto physician Esther Clark (sister of architect Birge Clark) in 1944. The airstrip became history, but is still visible although overgrown.

The Winbigler chateau.

In 1914 Palo Alto realtor William Cranston bought a 20-acre parcel of land in Los Altos Hills at what is now the corner of Fremont Road and Campo Vista Drive. The property included a big red barn and an old shingled farmhouse, which was called the Red Barn House.

Two Cranston children, daughter Ruth Eleanor and son Alan - who would become United States Senator from California - roamed the area in childhood. In 1922 the Cranstons sold the property to Dr. C.C. Crane. Crane demolished the old farmhouse and erected an elaborate manor in the style of a French chateau.

In 1946 Donald Winbigler, Dean of Students at Stanford University, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, a professional classical Spanish dancer, purchased the property. The Winbigler House, as it became known, and the surrounding property, with an apricot and plum tree orchard, became a popular subject for local artists.
In 2002, the Winbiglers having passed, new owners applied for, and were granted, a permit to make additions to the house in the original style. Instead, they demolished the house.

On Sunday, February 27, 2011, John Ralston, Program Director of the Los Altos Hills Historical Society, will give an illustration presentation on both lost landmarks.

About the Author

John Ralston is a third-generation San Franciscan, the great grandson of Henry Russell Ralston, a Scottish ironworker who arrived in San Francisco with his brother, the first John Ralston, around 1865, and who with the first John established the Ralston Iron Works on Howard Street about 1870.

The current John was born on May 10, 1942, and as it was just after the United States entered World War II there was a shortage of necessities, including taxicabs. No cab came to the family's Larkin Street address when John's mother went into labor, and John's uncle was called in the middle of the night to take his mother and panic-stricken father to St. Mary's hospital. John's uncle tore over in his vintage 1940 Buick, the party was hustled aboard, and the Buick tore off, but too late. Sixty-five years later, John basks in the satisfaction of knowing that while many San Franciscans boast of being born in such-and-such a neighborhood, he was born in several! Appropriately, May 10th was Mother's Day.

Like his father, uncle, aunt, and two older brothers, John attended the old Lowell on Hayes Street, and he majored in history at the University of California, Berkeley, with an emphasis on Russia and the Soviet Union. The circumstances of his birth having indelibly impressed upon John a love for and fascination with his native city, he began researching San Francisco's history independently after graduating. Two literary sparks that ignited his research were the late William Bronson's The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned about the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, and Boss Ruef's San Francisco, by the late Walton Bean, distinguished professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a foremost authority on California. In the latter work John first encountered the great editor Fremont Older (1856-1935), and the more he read about this incredible individual and the times in which he lived - and influenced - the more John was determined to produce a biography worthy of Older.

John and his wife Lana, have formed the Ralston Independent Works (the name commemorates Great-Grandfather Henry's and Great-Uncle John's venture), with several aims: publishing "This date in San Francisco", a book that will have an entry for every date of the calendar year, and will be available in 2010.
An Authentic Hero, the biography of Fremont Older; is almost finished. In October 2003 John and Lana presented a mixed-media program on the Billings-Mooney case to the San Francisco History Association. In June 2004 John gave a program on Fremont Older at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society's monthly meeting, and in September, 2007, a program "Character References: Famous San Francisco Men and Women".

John and Lana also collaborate on the Encyclopedia of San Francisco website, to help stimulate interest in the SFMHS's monumental plans for a Museum of the City of San Francisco in the Old Mint on Fifth Street. Please visit Ralston Independent Works web site to get familiar with their work.







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